Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Oct 05, 2012
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Various

Release Date(s)

1931-1954 (October 2, 2012)

Studio(s)

Universal

Review

 

Disc Five - Bride of Frankenstein

For their first sequel, Universal reunited Karloff, Colin Clive and James Whale for Bride of Frankenstein. Whale seems to have been given free reign to do whatever he wanted to do on this one and he takes full advantage to deliver one of the most original and entertaining horror films of all time. Whenever film fanatics argue about sequels that are superior to the original, Bride should always be mentioned.

The movie goes from one classic sequence to another with Ernest Thesiger’s performance as the eccentric Dr. Pretorius a particularly inspired addition. Elsa Lanchester is unforgettable as the Monster’s Mate, from her electrified hair down to her odd, bird-like movements. It’s a testament to the film’s power that the blind hermit sequence still works today even after Mel Brooks expertly parodied it in Young Frankenstein. And while Karloff may have been against the decision to endow the creature with speech, it’s hard to say it was a bad call with such iconic lines as, “We belong dead.”

Along with the two versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Bride was given the full-on digital restoration treatment. As with those films, the results are out of this world. This is another rich, detailed transfer that looks as though as pristine new print had been struck and delivered directly to your home. High marks also for the cleaned-up audio track, although Franz Waxman’s great score sounds a wee bit punier than one might like.

The extras begin to repeat themselves on this disc, with the same trailer gallery as on Frankenstein and the same Restoring the Classics featurette. I can only assume these were repeated in case Universal releases these as stand-alone titles later on down the line. Additional extras include an audio commentary by Scott MacQueen, the Skal-umentary She’s Alive! Creating Bride of Frankenstein, and the Bride of Frankenstein Archives.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B- 

 

Disc Six- The Wolf Man

The Invisible Man may have been human but he wasn’t exactly relatable. He’s already half nuts and completely invisible before the movie even starts. But Larry Talbot was just a regular guy who had the misfortune to be bitten by a werewolf and inherit his curse. And, as played by Lon Chaney Jr. in what would come to be his signature role, Universal finally had its first everymonster.

Director George Waggner wasn’t an iconoclast like Tod Browning or James Whale and didn’t have the visual style of Karl Freund. But The Wolf Man works, thanks largely to the screenplay by Curt Siodmak that pretty much invents everything we now consider to be werewolf “mythology”. Jack Pierce’s makeup is primitive compared to later werewolves but it’s effective and allows Chaney room to give the Wolf Man a personality. Chaney, a big, beefy, likable-looking guy, may be an unlikely horror icon. But as Larry Talbot, he conveyed both savagery and pained innocence. Larry didn’t deserve to have this happen to him. But no one ever does in the best horror movies.

Image quality on The Wolf Man is, once again, rich, clear and detailed. However, I noticed some mildly distracting edge enhancement from time to time. If I noticed it on my normal-person-sized display, on larger screens that enhancement will likely go from mildly to extremely distracting. Audio quality, on the other hand, is top-notch. No complaints there.

The disc’s extras begin with an audio commentary by Tom Weaver, followed by Skal’s Monster by Moonlight documentary. The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth featurette is too brief to be really illuminating. The disc does include one of the most interesting biographical docs, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney Jr., perhaps because Chaney’s life hasn’t been quite as well-documented as Lugosi’s or Karloff’s. The Pierce documentary He Who Made Monsters was evidently so nice, they included it twice. It shows up again on this disc. Finally, there’s The Wolf Man Archives, a trailer gallery of six wolf-movies (including Werewolf of London and She-Wolf of London, not connected to the Chaney cycle) and one of the more interesting 100 Years of Universal featurettes, The Lot

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/A-

 

Disc Seven - Phantom of the Opera

Universal had its first taste of horror-flavored success with the 1925 silent version of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Sr. So it isn’t a surprise that they’d remake the picture. The only real shock is that it took them so long to get around to it.

But director Arthur Lubin’s 1943 version is no match for Chaney and is probably the one inessential element of The Essential Collection. The first sign of trouble is that singer Nelson Eddy is top-billed over the Phantom himself, Claude Rains. (By the way, it’s also a little surprising to realize that Rains turns up in three movies in this set, more than either Lugosi or Chaney Jr. and equal with Karloff.) This isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a lavish, Technicolor prestige picture. It’s gorgeous to look at and Rains is fun, but I’d be more likely to watch Phantom of the Paradise on Halloween night than this.

The only color film in the set is dazzlingly bright and crisp. In fact, maybe a little too crisp. To my eyes, this seemed to get a little too much attention from the grain police, resulting in a slightly over-processed look. It isn’t one of the worst offenders I’ve seen and the picture can frequently look spectacular. But on a larger screen, it may look too digitally enhanced for some. The sound is great, however, which is good considering how vital the music is to the experience. Universal did a first-rate job restoring the audio elements on this one.

Extras are a bit more meager on this disc but include a first-rate Skal documentary, The Opera Ghost: The Phantom Unmasked, an audio commentary by Scott MacQueen, and production photos. The theatrical trailer is here all by its lonesome since Universal didn’t franchise out the Phantom, which is kind of a surprise when you think about it. Finally, the 100 Years featurette The Lot makes its first encore appearance.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/A/C+

 

Disc Eight - Creature from the Black Lagoon

By 1954, horror movies were pretty well dead and buried, replaced by the sci-fi terrors of giant irradiated ants, lizards and assorted other innocent creatures. But Universal still had one last great monster left to unleash: the Gill-Man. He didn’t speak. He didn’t seem to want anything other than to be left alone (and mate with Julia Adams but who can blame him for that). And he was played by two different actors (Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning underwater) neither of whom became or were even intended to become stars. And yet he became one of the most beloved monsters in the pantheon.

The story itself takes your standard 50s sci-fi stock characters (scientists, scientist’s gorgeous fiancée, native guides) and mixes in a little King Kong/Beauty and the Beast action. In fact, if the Gill-Man’s design (primarily by Millicent Patrick, though makeup artist Bud Westmore gets all the onscreen credit) wasn’t so special and unique, the movie would probably be forgotten today. If you love Creature, odds are you love it because of the Gill-Man. I know I do and others here at The Bits do, too. (See if you can spot which one at the About The Staff page.)

The big news for the Blu-ray release is its availability in its original 3D format. Alas, I do not have a 3D TV or player (but this disc has made me more likely than anything else to consider getting them), so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of that presentation. In 2D, the image is more than a little inconsistent. I don’t think it’s the transfer or restoration so much as it is the limitations of the original material with its mixture of underwater and above-water photography. This would be a tricky movie to get HD-ready and I think Universal did the best they could with what they had. The audio quality is quite good, at least.

In addition to the 3D presentation, extras include audio commentary by Tom Weaver, Skal’s Back to the Black Lagoon documentary, production photos, a trailer gallery including all three Creature features, and the 100 Years featurette The Lot, making its third and final appearance.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/B+

 

Final Thoughts

Considering that at one time Universal wasn’t even sure if they were going to release these movies on Blu-ray at all, this set is truly remarkable. The discs come housed in a handsome and sturdy slipcase with the discs in a sumptuously designed sleeve and a very nicely produced booklet with lengthy liner notes. Sure, it would be nice if the set had more newly produced bonus content. But it’s hard to complain about that when everything worth having from the many previous incarnations of these films has been included and that material is so informative and entertaining. At the end of the day, it’s the incredible technical presentation of the films themselves that make this set so spectacular. If you love the Universal Monsters, you must own this collection.

- Dr. Adam Jahnke

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by Adam Jahnke